An overview of the aftermath of the Trump administration's 2017 zero tolerance policy
By Aline Barros | VOA News
U.S. Border Patrol agents keep watch on a large group of migrants who they say were attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, in El Paso, Texas, May 29, 2019. (Reuters)
In June 2018, family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border made international headlines after audio of scores of sobbing children screaming for their parents emerged from a U.S. federal detention facility.
Though news of the separations came to light in 2018, a pilot program had already started in 2017 in the El Paso, Texas, area.
Five years later, court documents show, more than 5,000 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under a practice known as the zero tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossers. However, it was also used on migrants who presented themselves legally at ports of entry. Parents of 180 children have not yet been found by advocates working with families.
The policy sparked widespread bipartisan outrage and eventually pushed former President Donald Trump to sign an executive order ending the practice. Many of the parents were expelled from the United States, an immigration attorney told VOA.
Some of the children are in foster care; others are with relatives they had never known before.
The Trump administration begins to consider a policy to separate families at the border, according to Reuters.
In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif.
Administration tests pilot program in El Paso
Before officially implementing the zero tolerance policy, the Trump administration runs a pilot program in the El Paso region. The government begins separating families who arrive along the U.S.-Mexico border, including those who present themselves legally at official ports of entry. The policy essentially allows the government to keep parents in custody while they await asylum hearings or contest deportation. And their children are to be cared for by a relative or a state-sponsored guardian.
Houston Chronicle publishes first reports of family separation
The Houston Chronicle reports that the Trump administration has been separating children since June 2017. It identifies 22 cases of families whose children were taken from them without due process, showing that former U.S. officials started the pilot program to separate children from parents at the border more than a year earlier to deter illegal crossings.
Zero tolerance policy officially begins at U.S.-Mexico border
The Trump administration officially begins the zero tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Justice Department and border authorities charge each adult who crosses the southwest border with illegal entry, regardless of whether they are asylum-seekers or traveling with their children — or have committed no violent crimes. (PDF)
The adults are taken to jail. Any children accompanying the adults are sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and put into Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters. [[https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/uc]]
Before the zero tolerance policy, families would either be paroled into the country to wait for their immigration cases or be detained together in family detention centers.
U.S. government separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents between April 19 and May 31
Former Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jonathan Hoffman tells reporters in a June 15 conference call that the U.S. government separated nearly 2,000 children from their parents between April 19 and May 31. The government does not have a plan in place to reunite families, court documents show.
A mother migrating from Honduras holds her 1-year-old child as she surrenders to U.S. Border Patrol agents after illegally crossing the border near McAllen, Texas, June 25, 2018.
U.S. government separated more than 2,000 children from their parents
Between May 5 and June 9, 2,342 children are separated at the border from more than 2,200 adults, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The American Civil Liberties Union files a class-action lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw issues a preliminary injunction on June 26 ordering U.S. immigration officials to reunite most separated families within 30 days. The judge gives officials two weeks to reunite children younger than 5 with their parents. He also prohibits separations unless the parents are a danger to the child, have a communicable disease or have a criminal history.
Officials from the Trump administration say in a court filing that 2,551 children between the ages of 5 and 17 are still separated from their parents.
The government reports to the court that 2,654 children were separated from their parents, and that of that number, 2,363 have been sent to stay with a relative or sponsors in the U.S., according to the ACLU.
Trump officials confirm the administration separated at least 1,712 children before the zero tolerance policy went into effect in May 2018.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., wait to testify before the House Oversight Committee hearing on family separation and detention centers, July 12, 2019 on Capitol Hill.
Witnesses describe the trauma caused by the family separation policy during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing. (PDF)
In this July 15, 2019, photo, migrant children walk on the grounds of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, in Homestead, Fla.
The ACLU files a motion asking a federal judge to block the Trump administration from continuing to separate families at the border. About 900 families were separated after the nationwide injunction on June 26, 2018, for minor offenses.
Report shows U.S. officials failed to track families
David Xol-Cholom, of Guatemala, hugs his son Byron Xol-Cholom at the Los Angeles International Airport as they are reunited after being separated about 1½ years earlier during the Trump administration's wide-scale separation of immigrant families in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2020.
On behalf of two immigrant parents and their children, who were separated at the border, the Southern Poverty Law Center sues the Trump administration.
More reports show that the number of children separated from their parents could be as high as 5,000.
Court documents show the government failed to find the parents of 545 children separated under the zero tolerance policy. That number later increases to 666 children.
More than 5,000 parents were separated from their children under then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 “zero tolerance” policy.
Parents of 180 children have not yet been found by advocates working with families.
But Lee Gelernt, lead ACLU attorney who sued to stop the Trump administration policy and represents separated families, said in an interview he believes at least 1,000 need to be reunited.
The number of detention or care centers located in 17 states throughout the country. The majority of the children were sent to facilities in Arizona, California and Texas.
Biden Administration -
Biden sworn in as president
President Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
In this March 30, 2021, photo, young minors lie inside a pod at the Department of Homeland Security's Donna, Texas, holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley.
Together.gov is launched
Mayorkas announces that some families could be reunited in the United States and might be allowed to remain. More recently, DHS has created websites in English (together.gov), Spanish (juntos.gov) and other languages so separated family members can register for help.
Migrants pass the time at a migrant shelter, May 12, 2021, in McAllen, Texas. The U.S. government continues to report large numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with an increase in adult crossers.
To settle the ACLU lawsuit, the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security discuss providing financial compensation to the families who were separated.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Justice Department was considering paying about $450,000 to each person affected by the zero-tolerance policy.
270 children are still separated
With litigation still ongoing, DHS tells VOA in a written statement the task force “has made significant and important progress” since its creation, facilitating “the reunification of 63 families.”
Per the latest court documents, about 270 children remain to be reunited with their parents.
Some Republicans do not agree with financial compensation to separated families
The compensation talks outrage some Republican lawmakers. The Biden administration halts settlement talks aimed at compensating families separated at the border.
The Justice Department says it is “committed to engaging with the plaintiffs and to bringing justice to the victims of this abhorrent policy.”
In written statement, DHS tells VOA that the interagency task force “has made significant and important progress,” and as of March, a year since its creation, the task force, along with nonprofits, has reunited 147 children with their parents.
The National Immigrant Justice Center reports the Biden administration has moved to dismiss claims brought by separated families seeking compensation for the harm the policy has caused.
Kids In Need of Defense announces it has contacted 422 families and registered 337 on the task force’s together.gov website. (PDF)
Biden officials announce new guidance to avoid family separation
More than 20 lawsuits have been filed by migrants who were separated at the border. Some want the U.S. to grant legal residence and continue mental health services to the families. Others seek payment for the harm, suffering and pain the zero tolerance policy caused them and their minor children.
A nationwide class-action lawsuit represents parents separated from their children under the zero tolerance policy. The parents are asking the U.S. government to grant them legal residence, a continuation of health care services, and money to compensate for their suffering.
The ACLU and immigrant nonprofits meet in federal court with U.S. government officials on a monthly basis for status updates on current reunification efforts.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced additional steps to make sure children are not intentionally separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. In the new guidance, ICE leadership calls for more training for ICE personnel who deal with families; wants to allow on a case-by-case basis parents and legal guardians to return to the U.S. to attend legal hearings related to their parental rights; and to “affirmatively inquire” about the relationship between migrants and minors crossing the border together and enter that information into the migrants’ files. The new guidance also applies to undocumented families living inside the country.
According to ACLU attorneys, 450 families have been reunited under the Biden administration.